IN an awkward and potentially disastrous time for racing, veteran racing editor ANDREW HARRISON of Gold Circle reflects on the reasons he loves the Sport Of Kings.
I am often asked, even by my wife of over thirty years, what I see in horse racing. “I watch those interviews on the TV and it’s the same old stuff that you were listening to twenty years ago,” she complains.
The wife is a Sharks fan. What’s the difference between rugby interviews and racing interviews? Prematch is always “it’s going to be tough, they are a quality team but we’ve trained hard,” and postmatch, “it was a tough game, credit to the opposition.” There is only so much you can say.
The answer lies in between – what happens on the track and on the field. The difference these days being that the minority don’t know what they are watching in a rugby game, the majority don’t have a clue what happens in a horse race.
In the age of the internet, mobile phones and fast cars, horse racing harks back to an era of daily newspapers, ‘Nommer Asseblief’ and the horsedrawn carriage but like any other sport it has its heroes, equine and human – one up on rugby.
It often takes a little spark to start the blaze. For me it was the radio broadcast of racing commentaries during half time in rugby matches or the tea break in cricket.
Living in Swaziland, I had never seen a race or even a racehorse for that matter – this before the advent of television. The voices of Ernie and Peter Duffield, Trevor and Eric Denman, Sandy Bickett, Graeme Hawkins and Jehan Malherbe painted pictures, stimulating the “theatre of the mind”.
Further, at the behest of PW Botha, I found myself in the company of Paul Lafferty and Joe Haefele and heated arguments raged into the night as to which was the better sprinter, Glory Be or Gerald Boy. And still I had yet to see a racecourse.
It was during this time on the border of Angola that Laff’s brother wrote, “Syd Laird has another champion – Politician”.
Out of the army and in Cape Town to start a university career I watched my first horserace on television as Politician narrowly out-gunned Big Swinger in the Cape Guineas. Through circumstance, I finally got to watch the big chestnut in the flesh. My ‘Old Man’ pulled a few strings and I landed a plum three-month summer vac job in the Cape Argus racing department under the eccentric Chris Stokoe, Mark Small and later Tarquin Norval and I got to the track twice a week.
The following year I watched as my equine hero reeled off victories in the Somerset Plate, the J&B Met and the Queen’s Plate.
Unable to make it through a packed Met crowd to the press balcony I watched clinging to the stand of on-course bookmaker “King Louis” as Bert Hayden, with seemingly nowhere to go, closed his eyes and threw the reins at Politician. The champ picked his own way through the traffic to beat the game mare Festive Season for his second Met victory.
In the forward to his book True Grit, famed Australian author Les Carlyon put it more eloquently:
“That day at the Valley reminded me why I liked racing. Everything about Northerly had been so wild and improbable. He was the urchin from the West and he had beaten Sunline, one of the best mares there has ever been. I watched the race at ground level …. on the fence, right by the winning post, which meant I didn’t see too much when the horses were on the back of the course. Didn’t see much of the race at all, actually. But I saw the bit the counted, and up close. I saw Northerly’s eye when he rushed past Sunline. As the American novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote in a slightly different context, it was a hot globe and all the world burned in it. And afterwards there was Fred Kersley, Northerly’s trainer, with his shy smile and a quality that came close to grace. It was so obvious, so simple ……. This is what makes racing interesting – horses and people.”
I was there to watch Politician round off his career in the Queen’s Plate – run after the Met in those years. Syd Laird jumping aboard his champion in the winner’s enclosure.
A sweating and proud Politician dancing onto the track in a victory parade. And the fan whose life so nearly ended as he leaned over the Kenilworth rail shouting “Dis my perd,” with the champion’s hooves flashing past on either side of his head. He probably would have died happy.